Recently we received this question from a parent:
Q: How should we respond to our children (middle school, high school and college) who insist there is no God?
My first impulse in responding to people who “insist there is no God” is to show them how wrong they are to hold that belief. I mean, look around, right? It takes a lot of faith to believe everything came from nothing. But “people” denying God’s existence is much different than MY KIDS denying that God exists and turning from their (our) faith. That creates sleepless nights, desperate pleas and crying out to God. It also tends to lead parents into anxious lobbying for their point of view when in fact, there is probably very little new that parents can say.
Aside from the conventional wisdom about this (which we fully embrace) to pray, to speak truth, and to love them, here are some less common ideas that have been shown to have powerful influence with children over time.
Julia was fed up. Her kids fought daily about their responsibilities, and Julia was at the end of her patience. Daily power struggles were beginning to define their relationships as the kids grew more discouraged and Julia more determined to stop the “misbehavior.” So Julia came to us for help.
As we sat and talked, it was clear from Julia’s description of her children’s behavior that there was more going on than mere misbehavior. We discussed how kids’ “misbehavior” is often just the tip of the iceberg of hunger, discouragement, anxiety, or tiredness. Julia went away from her session with a resolve to better understand both her challenging son Josh and her daughter Ashley, and help them better understand themselves. She wrote this report in preparation for our next session:
Kids usually do the best they know how to express their feelings. The best they can do is usually quite immature and unrefined. A problem occurs when, instead of validating our kids’ best efforts to express their feelings, we minimize, invalidate, or even punish their expression.
Sometimes conflict with our kids can seem to arise out of nowhere. Or, a conversation that seemed to be over something relatively minor can explode with little warning into a full-fledged battle.
Why does this happen?
A lot of the time, it’s because of emotions under the surface.
Watch the video below to hear about the time I discovered an iceberg of emotions in the middle of a conflict with my daughter, Bethany.
We talk a lot here at CF about the power of empathy to build bridges of influence to children’s hearts – even when they misbehave. So we loved this animated 3-minute video of Dr. Brene Brown speaking about the difference between empathy and sympathy. As you watch, consider the application for you and your children.
We often see a common parenting cycle when kids are prone to anxiety. In short, it goes like this:
- Child feels anxious
- Worried, but well-meaning parent “encourages” the child toward to overcome the anxiety by pushing the child
- The child gets more anxious and withdraws, or has a meltdown in order to feel in control
- The child feels more ashamed and anxiety builds
- Parents feel scared about the future and the anxious (and usually very emotionally sensitive) child picks up on this and grows even more anxious
- Repeat at increasingly higher intensity
This cycle might be about homework, new experiences, social situations, or any number of challenges.
In response to a Facebook post we shared, Michelle, one of our followers, shared a fantastic story of connecting with her little one even in the midst of disrespectful misbehavior:
Kids struggle. So do adults. Not rocket science, but profound nonetheless, and easy to forget.
When we find ourselves in a parenting struggle, many times our natural inclination is to end it right now, at all costs. Squash it. Squelch it. Just make it stop!
Often times our emotion drives our response to our child. Perhaps it is embarrassment for the child’s behavior in a public place or in front of someone we were hoping would think highly of us. Perhaps it is frustration from the piles of laundry and dirty dishes. Maybe it is from the hurtful words spoken to us by a friend or colleague. Maybe it doesn’t have much to do with our child at all. And all we can think of at the moment of the struggle is, “How can I make this stop?”
When the goal is making it stop we become like opposing goalies in our child’s eyes. Our primary objective is to keep the ball (or puck, depending on your preferred sport) out of the net. Whatever their question, our answer is no. We are the opposition, an obstacle to be defeated or “gotten by” in order to get what they want rather than a teammate with whom they seek to cooperate. This, of course, leads to the classic power struggle.
It’s at times like this that we have an important opportunity. What will we do in this frustrated, exasperated place?
“Mommy, I want it! Can I have it? I want it NOW!”
When we hear this sort of thing from our kids, knowing that what they want is not really something they need, we’re inclined to quickly pronounce, “No!” Some kids may accept this answer, but most will quickly escalate into a power struggle.
Either way, to quickly pronounce “No!” is to miss a great opportunity to help a child learn responsibility and wisdom. It tends instead to create in them an even stronger compulsion to get stuff as a way of feeling significant.
But you can help them feel significant in much more constructive ways helping them learn to think it through for themselves. This can be hard work at first, but it pays off great dividends in the long run.
As stated in previous posts, the way parents deal with anger often gives kids the impression that anger is always bad.
Unfortunately, as kids grow up learning that anger is bad, if they aren’t equipped with ways of dealing with their anger, they tend to do one of two things. They either develop the habit of fighting for the sake of gaining control or they build a habit of “fleeing” (avoiding conflict and stuffing feelings) in order to escape the pain of conflict. Psychologists call this “fight or flight.”
Habitual fighters somehow believe there is significance gained in the fight for power and control. They become overtly angry and aggressive about too many things. They react quickly and unreasonably to the things that anger them. Almost every child’s first expressions of anger are some form of fighting. But if kids regularly get sternly confronted or angrily punished for these expressions, they quickly learn from their parents’ example that anger is a weapon. They either keep fighting harder in order to win, or they learn to flee because they know they can’t win.
Kids who flee get quiet. They get sad. They withdraw into worlds of their own and do little if anything to let us know they’re angry. The most troubling thing when kids “take flight” is that at first glance they don’t seem angry. They are often compliant to our requests. They don’t like the requests, or the feel of being controlled, but they don’t have the will or energy to fight. So they give in and coast along. But there is a limit to how much anger they can hold in. So they have to express it somehow.